It’s tempting to call it “the stupid tax,” but that would be unkind.
Accurate, but unkind.
Sitting there at the bar, it was strangely fascinating to watch — a fellow systematically emptying his wallet, one $100 bill after another.
The bartender counted out stacks of sandwiched cardboard and he, one by one, ripped them open in search of the elusive big winner.
As I finished my beer and turned to leave, he was reaching for his wallet, the better part of a paycheck turned into so much waste paper. But there were still pull-tabs in the box and dollars in his pocket and he wouldn’t be quitting until one or both were gone.
Now I certainly don’t know that man’s circumstances, but nothing in his look or manner would suggest him to be the type to easily afford a multi-hundred dollar charitable donation via barroom gambling.
Still, it was all good and legal, and I’m sure there are many folks quick to admonish that it’s none of my business how the guy down the bar, or anyone else for that matter, chooses to spend his money.
True enough, I guess, in a libertarian, Econ 101 sort of way. Self interest and reason guides us in deciding how we spend our money, or so the theory goes, and that decision should be no one’s but our own.
Fair enough, as far as it goes. But isn’t it fair to ask what sort of reason and self interest leads a fellow to invest half a week’s pay in waste paper? Is there any doubt that a trash bag full of losing pull tabs would be a slow, slow seller at any price?
Of course, that’s not what that gambler thought he was buying. No doubt he laid down his money believing that somewhere in that pile of pasteboard was the magic combination that would return him all he had lost and show a handsome profit to boot. All it would take was another few dollars and a little bit of luck.
And that’s exactly what the folks who manufacture, market and profit from the billions spent on pull tabs, scratch offs, mega-millions and casino glitter want him to believe – all that stands between him and those dreams of riches and good fortune is one more dollar, one more try.
And that’s where the stupid comes in.
Informed reason, no further away than the most rudimentary Google search, knows that in any game of chance, ultimately the house always wins. Play long enough and you’ll lose your last dime.
But the promoters don’t put that on the billboards, do they? They promote a brand of financial faith healing that, like the huckstering TV preacher, plays on the desperate hopes of the most vulnerable.
And otherwise intelligent people acting out of desperate hope will often do things that make them look stupid.
It’s an interesting observation that the spread of legal gambling and the stagnation of wages and the growth of the income gap moved in parallel.
Stuck in jobs that are going nowhere, faced with a future that is ever less certain, winning the lottery has replaced the union pension plan for millions of working men and women.
While the well-off wager on derivatives and index funds, their minimum-wage cousins are left to bet it all on the turn of a card, the roll of the dice or the bing-bonging algorithms driving what used to be called one-armed bandits.
And of course, the house always wins; be it the charitable organization that no longer has to solicit donations based on the worth of the work they do, or governments who cash in on the gullible in lieu of raising taxes on folks who would rather not pay them.
The house wins. The guy down the bar loses. We all come up snake eyes in the end.